Year A-Bored

Scorching Spain and shining sand. The eclectic cultures and landscapes of Southern America. Mini paradises surrounded by Caribbean azures. Parties, newfound cities and exotic friends, the best year of your life.

That’s the mirage my trusting eyes focused on when I signed up for seven months of teaching for my year abroad. Several forms and meetings later, hearing previous assistants applauding the value and fun of the year out, I was wholly convinced. These months would be the most memorable of my university career. I was destined for Northern France near the historical gem of Mont St Michel and, promised bicycles and baguettes galore, I waved goodbye to Glasgow filled with expectation. Planning, packing, poring over Google maps – no preparation could have softened the blow of what I actually experienced.

Morning at the Mont

Reality descended upon me like a wave upon arrival. The jump across the Channel suddenly seemed oceanic. I swayed through the motions; two days later, another reality hit. A jarring thump as my colleague opened Anglais 5eme and said, “page 41. We’re doing prepositions tomorrow. Prepare a lesson.” The next seven months brought more work than my two years of university. The night approached, re-runs of Big Bang Theory in the background as I bent over my laptop, tapping out worksheets, presentations and games.

It didn’t help my failing enthusiasm to know that there was a huge discrepancy between language assistant workloads. Whilst I spent evenings stressing and mornings rushing, others swayed into class late, with the luxury of Fridays off. My meagre twelve hours were spread inconsiderately over the week, making it impossible for me to travel at weekends.

Although the company of English speakers and the cheap accommodation were blessings, the minuscule anglicised microcosm I survived in was the limit of the town’s social scene. In vain, we followed the British Council Survival Bible – “join German classes attended by the over-50s, drink at the local pub that smells and looks like your gran’s living room, sit in the park and hope a fellow flower-loving pensioner takes pity on you and starts a conversation…” (Rural Version.) The officially issued advice was clearly tailored to those gifted with city postings, not us ‘out in the sticks.’ We really did try everything to integrate. Yet after seven months of solo teaching and little practical application of French, I left feeling disappointed in the placement and with my failure to fit in.

Whether you’re considering a period abroad, have recently returned or are checking in at departures, here’s the regrettable reality: my story is lonely, but it’s far from alone. Along the northern coasts, in the small continental settlements, other assistants I knew had similar experiences. Isolation, boredom, misjudgement, at worst even bullying by colleagues.

Like all returners, I’m gradually readjusting to Glasgow’s buzz and banter in the nostalgic mirror of my year abroad memories. I acted at the school’s film club, I dined with teachers and I valued my flatmates’ company. I wasn’t completely isolated. However, my time in France simply didn’t meet my expectations. Whether it’s a case of personal acceptance, unfortunate location or misplaced hopes, we learn. Don’t place too much in society’s conviction of the idyllic, sun-swathed year abroad. Such dazzling ideals will only leave you burnt.

This article first appeared in Glasgow University’s student newspaper, the Glasgow Guardian, on September 10 2013.

2 thoughts on “Year A-Bored

  1. Hey, really interesting to read your article as a student who has also just finished a year abroad as a teaching assistant.

    Although I realise that each year abroad experience is unique and individual I feel it is unfair to post this article at the time people are leaving for their YA. In my opinion this is a hugely one sided opinion and the majority of students would say the year was the best of their lives. I think you really should have used your initiative and the year abroad handbook from the conference which states that if you encounter any problems then just ask your mentor, head teacher or the British council for advice. Unless you tell them you’re having problems, the school would merely assume you we’re fine & managing with the work they were giving you.

    To future assistants reading this: the year abroad is what YOU make it. Don’t be afraid to tell the school of you’re having problems.. They’d be upset if they thought you were suffering alone.

    1. Hi Hannah! Thanks for your comment on my article; I’m glad you found it interesting.

      I’d like to reply to your post to define exactly what I am trying to achieve with this article. You are completely right when you say that each ELA has a different experience (even the girls I lived with had differing routines and realities!) However, as this is a personal piece, of course it is one sided – it is an honest view of MY own experience abroad.

      That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been in touch with other ELAs, especially in small towns, who have gone through the same, or similar things to myself. I don’t think either of us can define exactly how many people claim it was “the best year of their lives.” I’m not trying to prove that it won’t be; instead I’m offering a balanced opinion (rather than the typical “it’ll be amazing!” chant.)

      Although this article is an overview of my experience, it is in no way a complete diary of it. I did “use my initiative and the year abroad handbook”: as I have written, I joined language classes, got involved in clubs at school, I ate out with teachers. In this piece, I balanced my bad experiences with the good (see previous anecdotes and “I wasn’t completely isolated” in the concluding paragraph.) I put myself out there, but my small town situation, lack of social scene and schoolwork slightly stacked against me. Likewise, I spoke to my teachers when I had issues and they were resolved.

      I completely agree with you – the school / British Council must be informed if problems arise. However, what I’m trying to undercut is society’s unquestioning acceptance of the gap year or year abroad as a flawless, perfect experience.

      To future assistants I would say: don’t be put off and don’t question your choice to go overseas. I learnt so much about myself and appreciate my situation so much more now I’m home. My message is to acknowledge and accept that your YA may not be perfect (then again it may be! I hope so!) And to those who have returned: don’t feel guilty if your experience isn’t the “dazzling ideal” you thought it would be.

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